Smoking Food- why and how

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact period in time when smoking food was first discovered, it is a common thought that it was the Stone Age era would have been the most likely when after a kill the meat would be hung up in their dwellings. During this period Stone Age folk would warm their dwellings using a fire to keep warm, the lingering smoke in the upper reaches of the area surrounded the hung meat.

It is then likely that people around this time found the “smoked” taste appeasing but more importantly discovered the effect of preservation. Obviously refrigeration machines we know today were not around back then and this method of preservation was ground breaking as the next meal on the table was never guaranteed it was therefore imperative to prepare for the times when food would be scarce, thus showing the intelligence of our ancestors.

Smoking food leaves Tarry deposits on the food which are antiseptic and inhibit the bacteria which causes food to spoil and it is this property of smoking which made it so important to our ancestors. Today we smoke food primarily to the appealing taste, although liquid “fake” smoke is available but the quality is non-comparable to real smoked food.

Before smoking meat it should be salted, either by rubbing salt directly in to the flesh or by soaking in a brine solution. The salting process allows the tissues in the meat to absorb the smoke flavour and also help the preservative properties of smoking. Smoking reduces the weight of meat and this should be used as a reliable indicator to ensure proper smoking has occurred, generally the greater the weight loss the better the keeping qualities of the food. Dry salting can remove up to 9% of the weight by drawing moisture of the flesh and therefore speeds up the process of smoking. Additional herbs and flavours can be added to a brine solution either for taste or for further preservative properties such as cloves. It is important to know what strength brine solution to use and there is endless information on the internet.

General Brine solutions at 15deg C per Gallon of water, Salt weight to water in Kg.

10% = 125g; 20% = 250g; 30% = 385g; 40% = 535g; 50% = 685g ;

60% = 840g; 65% = 925g 75% = 1.1kg;   70% = 1.01kg; 80% = 1.2kg;

85% = 1.3kg; 90% = 1.4kg; 95% = 1.5kg; 100% = 1.6kg

There are different methods to smoke food products. Cold smoking where the smoking temperature is approx 20 – 30 deg C and Hot smoking 50 – 80 Deg C neither of these method cook the food however certain foods can be eaten raw after smoking such as Salmon, Cods Roe and beef fillet. Items that would require further cooking include Haddock, Kippers, Cod, Chicken and pork. Other methods of smoking include Pressure smoking or Smoke roasting which cooks the food at the same time Temp between 93- 107 DegC, no more than 121 DegC though otherwise the meat will case harden and not allow the smoke to penetrate the meat or allow for evaporation of moisture.

The choice on which method to use depends upon what item you are smoking, what materials you have available to you, the allotted time you have to complete the process as cold smoking can take a couple of days and the desired end result as each method has its own benefits e.g. you cannot hot smoke roast smoke cheese, so to summarise;

Fish is more sensitive to heat than meat cuts like venison, please cross reference the best suitable temperature for your desired product or buy a good book.

The preserving/flavour smoke is generated from some sort of Vegetable matter. Traditionally Alder was originally used in the UK, however this can be bitter tasting. Today more popular woods include Oak, Hickory, Beech along with most fruitwoods such as Apple and Cherry (see end of Blog for more alternatives). Make sure there are no residual oils on the wood left by chainsaws etc. The wood needs to be processed in to either small chips or better sawdust. Through soaking the wood in water prior to smoking you are in fact added moisture filled smoke to the smoking chamber which goes against the process of de-hydrating the food to improve the keeping qualities, however dampening the shavings reduces the risk of the vegetable matter from igniting if you are struggling to keep a smoulder. All we want is a smoulder hence a very controlled heat source is required for smoking. Don’t be tempted to use fresh cut green wood when the sap is rising to ensure moisture content in the wood as this can produce a bitter taste

In this blog I will show you one method of how to make your very own Hot pressure smoker and at a later date a cold smoker, there are several ways to do this and this is just my interpretations. So please make your own smoker design and improve as you see fit, for ideas type in food smoker designs, have a look on Google images.

Pressure smoking / Roast smoking / pit roasting

As briefly described above roast smoking exposes the produce to heat as well as smoke and is the simplest way to start smoking foods with excellent results. Typically you would hot smoke meat, as exposing many other food products such as cheese to the level of heat required would just not work. The target temperature we want to be hot smoking at is between 93 and 120 Deg C any more than this most meats will case harden. The deeper the penetration the more flavour the smoke impairs on to the food, hence cold smoking typically has more flavour but has its own drawbacks. This process should always be completed outside due to the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

You will need:

A large metal tin (preferably not galvanised- e.g. an old bread tin is perfect. Some mesh, grill or skewers (again not galvanised) which will be suitable to place food on, a heat source, wire cutters, file and a drill (if you are using kebab skewers).

The idea is that the tin sits on the heat source the heat is then transferred through the tin to heat the vegetable matter in the tin, which due to the lack of oxygen smoulders producing large quantities of smoke with the chamber. The food then sits on a rack of some description, which then infuses with the smoke. Ideally a fat/moisture collector should be put under the food to keep the sawdust from getting contaminated. I haven’t noticed a massive impact of the wood shavings getting the meat juices on them.

If you can only acquire galvanised material, you will need to burn off the coating using a blowtorch outside. Inhaling the smoke of galvanised products can lead to Metal fume fever, not good.

First I laid wire mesh over the top of the tin and cut it out using wire cutters, ensuring that the length overlaps approximately 1.5 times the depth of the tin and ensuring the width of the rack has approximately 10mm of clearance each side. All the sharp tangs left on the mesh need to be filed/ground down as not to spike your hand whilst loading/unloading the mesh rack. The mesh is then bent to fit the tin ensuring there is clearance underneath for the vegetable matter to smoulder, see diagram. Another method to do this for more stability is to drill small clearance holes down the length of the tin both sides opposing each other and pass metal Kebab skewers through the tin. Ensure there isn’t too much clearance between the tin and skewer or the smoke and heat will escape.

Once you have set up your smoking tin, add the sawdust to the base of the tin. Place the grille in to the tin and arrange the desired food on the grille and replace the lid. Lift the whole assembly on to your heat source. In my case one of those flat cheap camping stoves which provide a lot of stability and ignite the stove. Allow time for the internal temperature to increase and for the sawdust to start smouldering. Small whisps of smoke should be seen coming out of the gaps in the lid of the tin showing the chamber is full of smoke and the process is working.

An excellent food smoking book which I purchased for a reasonable fee was Home smoking and curing by Keith Erlandson, ISBN 978-0-09-192760-8 and this gave me all the ammo I needed to get me going.

I hope this give you a rough outline on smoking food and inspires you to go out there and try making it for yourself, all the best and happy smoking.

N.B Here are some different woods to try out which I have found on the internet, I haven’t tried them all myself yet;


Grape vines.
Oak (White or English).

Walnut (English) – Shells as well.

Matt Adams- Apprentice Instructor

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